Imagine going to the dentist. You know you need a root canal and boy is it going to hurt. But you aren’t too worried because you know that a simple injection of Novocaine will do the trick to eliminate the majority of the pain. But, that’s today.
Now, imagine you need a root canal, but the year is 1860. Feeling slightly more nervous? You should be. Dental procedures in the mid-to late-1800s were commonly anesthetized with chloroform. Yes, you read that right. The drug that now elicits images of abduction and a rag over the mouth in the dark of night was once used to sedate patients for medical procedures.
Chloroform is a chemical anesthetic that was popularized in the mid-1800s for use during surgery and other medical procedures. It was first used for practical purposes in Scotland by James Young Simpson in 1847. Little did the doctors know, too much chloroform and/or prolonged exposure was lethal.
As early as 1852, doctors and researchers published rudimentary findings on the possibility of death by chloroform. Unfortunately for many soon-to-be victims, the research was not regarded and chloroform continued to be used instead of ether.
In order for a person to die from chloroform, he or she needs to be given a high dose for a prolonged period of time. If a high dose is given resulting in a cessation of breathing, the chloroform can be removed and the person will recover. However, if the high dose is prolonged until the person both stops breathing and the heart stops beating, resuscitation is unlikely. Therefore, those who died from exposure to chloroform did so likely due to a higher than typical dosage and continued exposure. When they went into cardiac arrest, the doctor did not notice as vital organs silently shut down before his eyes without his notice.
Unfortunately for Sarah Dunbar and Eva Clark, chloroform continued to be used late into the century in the Oil Region, leaving many deaths in its wake.
Sarah Dunbar, a woman of undisclosed age, died October 29th, 1869 at Dr. Phelps’s dentist office in Corry during a dental procedure. Dr. Phelps administered chloroform to Miss Dunbar, seemingly unaware that she had prior heart problems. Due to the combination of her heart issues and chloroform, Miss Dunbar died that Friday afternoon.
On February 27th, 1871, Eva Clark went to the dentist in Titusville to have a tooth extracted. Her dentist administered chloroform in an effort to perform a painless extraction. But Eva Clark would not live to see February 28th. Likely due to the dosage she was given and prolonged exposure, Eva expired in the dentist’s chair. She was 21 years old.
For better or worse, the deaths of Sarah Dunbar and Eva Clark were accidental, albeit tragic. But, chloroform was also used for much more sinister purposes.
In 1893, Dr. H.H. Holmes, aka Herman Mudgett, opened a hotel near the Chicago World’s Fair. Holmes lured unsuspecting guests to his specially designed hotel where he doused them with chloroform and murdered them. He eventually confessed to twenty-seven murders of which nine were confirmed. The actual number of victims is thought to be over 200. Holmes was convicted and executed by hanging in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1896 at age 34.
If you would like to read more about H.H. Holmes, one of America’s first serial killers, we have a spectacular book for you here at Benson: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. I’m sure by now you’re dying to read it. You won’t be disappointed.
Tune in to the Benson Blog in two weeks when we will be exploring another round of weird deaths. I’m simply in fits over which cases to reveal to you…it could almost drive me insane.